The Challenges of Autism and Friends
Even when she was little, Jess always wanted a friend. Not necessarily a friend her own age, just a “friend” to do things with, to play with, or to have a sleepover with. Sadly, making friends was difficult when she was young because she preferred the company of adults.
Plenty of children (and some adults I have met) have difficulty making friends. It is not that uncommon for children to consciously feel they are ‘different’ from their peers. Then, one day, someone comes along, and, voila! They have a friend! But wait… THEN comes the tricky part.
When Jess was 18 years old, she finally bonded with a friend at school. However, even though really great things were happening at school, anxiety figured into almost every day and almost every accomplishment. (Anxiety is a dominating factor with Jessica’s autism, as explained in previous posts Anxiety, OCD, ADHD, Mixed in a Blender, The Paralyzing Effect and Obsessed.)
Communication between home and school was a powerful tool in helping to manage the impact that each day’s anxiety had on the progress of the school day. As I reviewed the old agenda, I found multiple incidents where I had sent a note in the morning stating Jess was grouchy, upset, anxious, etc. The response to almost all of those notes was that Jess was fine that day.
I was reminded of how I felt that the teacher must think I was making up this stuff. When I asked, I found out that the teacher read all the agendas first thing each morning, and by me writing the notes, he knew how to approach Jessica for the day. He was a PRO at ‘redirecting’ Jess on to something else to get her past (or around) whatever was causing her anxiety for the day.
Although Jess could be worrying about anything from her Braille Writer to the bus or NOT knowing the people at the restaurants where she did her CBVI, the majority of comments about worry and anxiety were about people being absent. Sometimes it was worry over a paraprofessional, a bus aide, students, or even other teachers. Eventually, something very specific contributed to this type of anxiety becoming a long-term issue for Jess. The answer to that question: Had Jessica’s new friend come along for a REASON, SEASON, or LIFETIME?
One day Jessica went to school as usual and found out her friend
had moved away. She was devastated!
But then, the friend moved back.
But then, she was absent a lot.
Then she moved away again.
But then, she moved back.
Thus was the pattern of her ‘moving’ friend until Jess graduated from school. There became a lack of trust that an absence is just an absence. There became a constant worry that absence = moved away and that absence = will never see again. It was a confusing issue for all of us, and this was not something Jessica could let go of. She wasn’t capable of thinking, “oh well,” and just moving on. It wasn’t as simple as just finding a new friend.
As this insecurity grew, so did the impact it had on Jessica’s progress. Even though Jess was enjoying school, was enjoying learning to read, and was enjoying working in vocational settings, the anxiety was becoming a significant distraction. The distraction was not just Jessica’s; it was everyone’s. A lot of focus was turned toward preventing anxiety and redirecting away from anxiety. Every moment spent managing anxiety was a moment turned away from progress. We did not have all those moments to spare. We were Running Out of Time. We had 3 years left.
At this point in Jessica’s life, I continue to work on getting her to understand that friends come through our lives for different reasons, and all of those reasons matter. She has already had more than a few painful lessons about some friends only being a part of our lives for a season. What she wants most of all is what most of us want. She wants everyone to be a friend for a lifetime.